Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Does Intellectual Discourse Influence the Health Care Debate?

In what is proving to be an interminable struggle to establish health care reform, one that seems to determined prove that all glass houses, slaughterhouses, and sausage-making factories have see-through walls, I thought it might be instructive to contemplate a related contentious issue this country has dealt with in a prior age. Specifically, I thought I might allude to the series of essays our Founding Fathers penned to skeptical citizens to justify and validate the establishment of a strong central government. While many reference The Federalist Papers, sadly, few read them much these days. This is unfortunate, because many of the same arguments made in 1787 are tremendously relevant to the current day. In another in a series of ironies, the same right-wing critics who cling to the Constitution now as a means of justifying their opposition to "government mandates" or "government-run" programs would probably have been the same ones in another age to actively oppose its ratification and enactment.

Alexander Hamilton, who now moonlights as the old dead white guy on the ten-dollar bill wrote an introduction to the essays which speaks to our current quandry.

After an unequivocal experience of the inefficacy of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the union, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world. It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. (Italics mine) If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.

The importance of these essays, which of the Federal system still in force and are still cited by the judiciary to back up their own decisions, cannot be underestimated. Indeed, they were wildly popular with the public in their day and sold thousands of copies. Scholarship since then has romanticized their impact and scope, believing them to be the deciding factor in placating the concerns of reluctant states. What is often forgotten is that the Papers themselves were originally undertaken by Hamilton to combat misinformation about the Constitution and Anti-Federalist arguments that had shown up in newspapers.

The Federal Convention sent the proposed Constitution to the Confederation Congress, which at the end of September 1787 submitted it to the states for ratification. Immediately, the Constitution became the target of many articles and public letters written by opponents of the Constitution. For instance, the important Anti-Federalist authors "Cato" and "Brutus" debuted in New York papers on September 27 and October 18, 1787, respectively.[7] Hamilton decided to launch a measured and extensive defense and explanation of the proposed Constitution as a response to the opponents of ratification, addressing the people of the state of New York. He wrote in Federalist No. 1 that the series would "endeavor to give a satisfactory answer to all the objections which shall have made their appearance, that may seem to have any claim to your attention."[8]

Our current President has saturated the airwaves with his visage, addressed a Joint Session of Congress, pushed reform from any available surrogate, and still we are a House divided against itself. Yet, if past is prologue and this comparison is not entirely fatuous, do understand, as well, that it took over a year for each state to ratify our current Constitution; the debate quickly became heated, contentious, and stayed that way. Though news back and forth from the Capitol traveled much slower in those days, ratification was ultimately a state matter, not a Federal one. The decision was handed off to the states to decide amongst themselves, the matter to was to be debated among state leaders in state chambers on their own timetables. Then as now, the issue was resolved without reservation by some and with great reservation by others. Certain states ratified unanimously and others gave their cautious consent in very narrow decisions. By contrast, what some conservative voices have failed to recognize is that Health Care Reform is a decision in which states themselves have a limited voice beyond their Representatives or Senators. Whether or not this is "fair" is irrelevant. Those who cleave to the Constitution would be better off calling to change it instead of holding it fast to their breasts in some kind of mock-patriotic display.

The Federalist Papers (specifically Federalist No. 84) are notable for their opposition to what later became the United States Bill of Rights. The idea of adding a bill of rights to the constitution was originally controversial because the constitution, as written, did not specifically enumerate or protect the rights of the people, rather it listed the powers of the government and left all that remained to the states and the people. Alexander Hamilton, the author of Federalist No. 84, feared that such an enumeration, once written down explicitly, would later be interpreted as a list of the only rights that people had.

Hamilton's fears were, unfortunately, prescient. Within conservative arguments and discourse, from the mouths of politicians, pundits, and wingnuts today is a reliance upon the Bill of Rights as some last gasp defense against an overwhelming liberal infringement of personal freedom. To my eyes, this is a ridiculous contention, but one that state legislatures appear more than willing to use as justification for "protecting" themselves from supposed Washington, DC, interference in their own affairs. Personal rights go well beyond the Bill of Rights, but some are clearly unhappy unless these rights go hand in hand with their demands. At no point is government supposed to function according to the personal whims of those out of power and unwilling to deal with it in an adult fashion.

The Federalist was written to support the ratification of the Constitution, specifically in New York. Whether they succeeded in this mission is questionable. Separate ratification proceedings took place in each state, and the essays were not reliably reprinted outside of New York; furthermore, by the time the series was well underway, a number of important states had already ratified it, for instance Pennsylvania on December 12. New York held out until July 26; certainly The Federalist was more important there than anywhere else, but Furtwangler argues that it "could hardly rival other major forces in the ratification contests"--specifically, these forces included the personal influence of well-known Federalists, for instance Hamilton and Jay, and Anti-Federalists, including Governor George Clinton.[21]

Despite all of its noble sentiment and notable eloquence, doubt still exists as to whether The Federalist essays were responsible for turning the tides in favor of ratification. The Wikipedia source I cite above believes that the personalities of individual politicians seemed to do the most good in bringing the issue to a resolute and satisfying close. One wonders if in this day and age we have the Congressional leadership we need to force passage and put a decent bill on President Obama's desk. One would also hope that, unlike then, it doesn't take a full year of deliberation before enactment. We have lamented, quite rightly, a Democratic party which places factionalism ahead of unity and cannot speak as one voice. If Congress proves itself unable to push forward, then the only person with enough character and force of will would be our President. Though I myself would like to believe that ideas and civilized discourse might be the tipping point, then as now, it might not be enough.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Reducing Your Nation's Carbon Footprint Is Not A Matter of Buying Everyone Smaller Shoes

A treatise, upon which the author shockingly agrees with David Brooks (mostly) and uses Homestar Runner as inspiration for his title.

Brooks begins his argument in terms that an Enlightenment era thinker along the lines of Edward Gibbon would be pleased. This short essay, which could be entitled The Decline and Fall of the American Empire points out the complicity among all Americans in building a decadent society.

Centuries ago, historians came up with a classic theory to explain the rise and decline of nations. The theory was that great nations start out tough-minded and energetic. Toughness and energy lead to wealth and power. Wealth and power lead to affluence and luxury. Affluence and luxury lead to decadence, corruption and decline.

Once upon a time, this country prided itself on its flinty, self-sufficient character but decades of mass consumerism and mass communication have made us highly dependent both financially and emotionally on the constant acquisition of things. I also agree with Brooks that we've gotten caught up in a counter-productive pitched battle over morality that gets us nowhere, while we, regardless of allegiance end up sinking farther and farther into debt. I even agree that some degree of widespread irresponsibility and wholesale complicity had a large part in building this less-than-perfect beast, but I do strongly disagree with several of the conclusions he draws. He grasps the facts and the motives well, but his bias gets in the way, as well as his desire to fit profundity into simplistic talking points. Facts are stubborn things, and they are too ironic to ever easily fit inside any one particular ideological persuasion. Resolute, one-sentence conclusions and deductions do not do justice to the complexities of an already complex matter. If Brooks didn't have much of value to report, then I wouldn't bother to respond to it in some details.

Here, a few examples. Brooks can't help but get in at least one dig at the detrimental effects of big government.

Government was limited and did not protect people from the consequences of their actions, thus enforcing discipline and restraint.

Government in another age might have been smaller, but this doesn't necessarily mean that it worked more efficiently. In the past, people were clannish and more insular, particularly immigrant groups, which is much unlike the more multicultural, plurality society in which we live now. The citizen's role in government reflected this fact. Provincialism dominated before but now national politics and national decisions have a much broader scope, span, and influence. But those who believe that that the rich, well-connected, and powerful didn't frequently escape the consequences of their actions then, as now, are obviously smoking something and inhaling. It is a well-worn-out conservative talking point that the size of government is what makes it easy to bring down the financial sector and cause massive mayhem, but in this instance as in all others, wealth and power trump everything. Unless we can regulate that ancient problem, then it doesn't matter how big or how small or how anything government will be. So long as profit is in question and of paramount importance, money will make friends with anything. For the record, government has ALWAYS protected some people from the consequences of their actions.

Brooks is also not above name-checking Boomer Parenting Guilt™.

Waves of immigrant parents worked hard and practiced self-denial so their children could succeed.

As the child of baby boomer parents, periodically I am exposed to a familiar, guilt-laden, deadly serious discussion comprised of panicked faces and nervous body language. In this sober chat, which meets every six months or so, my parents ask me if I was given too much, pampered too much, or corrupted beyond all hope of ever being corrected as a direct result of some failed parenting strategy on their part. While I appreciate the concern and the sentiment, my response is inevitably the same: "You both did a good job. Don't worry about it." Bad parents and bad parenting will always exist and it has been my experience that the ones who hardly feel any compulsion to give themselves ulcers second-guessing themselves are the ones who have every right to worry. I myself have sounded the alarm that a kind of socially acceptable narcissism might be a result of cultural slovenliness but like all character flaws, the distribution is unevenly delegated and what is true for one is not true for everyone.

If there is to be a movement to restore economic values, it will have to cut across the current taxonomies. Its goal will be to make the U.S. again a producer economy, not a consumer economy. It will champion a return to financial self-restraint, large and small.

This, however, is sound advice. Yet, to accomplish it, we will have to find a way to block out the constant crush of advertising, marketing, and commodifying that forms an insidious, barely conscious part of our national conscience. We have been told for years that we are what we buy and that every solution to every problem we might run across can be easily rectified by purchasing a consumer good. Resolving to block out the morass of ad content that bombards us every conceivable instant is a good start, but part of the matter now is that our entire economy is driven by the very same major problems that created this recession. Consumer spending is the engine that drives the machine and when Americans began cutting back, the recession deepened precipitously. If we thought accomplishing significant change with health care was a major issue, imagine what it will be like to revamp our entire underlying economic theory. When so much of our self-esteem as people is wrapped up in our possessions and in idle expenditure, it should come as no surprise to any of us that we feel so out of it, collectively. Women are expected to drown their sorrows in retail therapy, but men find themselves trolling electronic stores and hardware stores to achieve the same effect. Without the degree of disposable income we've been accustomed to, we feel lost when we can't assuage our anxieties in the time-honored way.

Brooks concludes,

It will have to take on what you might call the lobbyist ethos — the righteous conviction held by everybody from AARP to the agribusinesses that their groups are entitled to every possible appropriation, regardless of the larger public cost. It will have to take on the self-indulgent popular demand for low taxes and high spending.

A crusade for economic self-restraint would have to rearrange the current alliances and embrace policies like energy taxes and spending cuts that are now deemed politically impossible. But this sort of moral revival is what the country actually needs.

Our own conditioned selfishness is what needs to change first. If, what the historians predicted 400 years ago was true, then it is inevitable that we've gotten to this ruinous epoch. Smaller government might be an option if we were truly intent on making it smaller across the board. Liberals want government to be big in the ways they want it and conservatives, the primary hypocrites in this matter, want government to big in the ways they want it. As this country grows in population and in complexity, government will have no choice but to adapt, though we will continually bicker about what its adaptive response should be. Peoples' occupations, portfolios, and savings have been built around the current model. What we must avoid at all cost is a self-centered mentality whereby we believe that even our very ideas and potential solutions are ours alone, and moreover, ought to be treated as though we have exclusive copyright and distribution privileges over them. Imagine if the Holy Teachers of any faith closely guarded their messages and words of wisdom to those who paid a monthly fee, or worse yet, sold them off to the highest bidder. I have always been a huge proponent of the internet because, even though there is a tremendous amount of superfluous noise to sort through, there is also the capacity to find inspiration and impetus for reform. This is why I blog and why I enjoy reading the substantive contributions so many are making. I really believe that it will take a collective effort to lay the groundwork for the change we need and I know I can't do it alone. Indeed, I think the fact that we believed we could do it alone is what got us into this mess.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Instead of a Post, Here's a Poem

Captain Hook must remember
Not to scratch his toes.

Captain Hook must watch out
And never pick his nose.

Captain Hook must be gentle
When he shakes your hand.

Captain Hook must be careful
Openin' sardine cans

And playing tag and pouring tea
And turnin' pages in his book.

Lots of folks I'm glad I ain't--

But mostly Captain Hook!

-Shel Silverstein

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Quote of the Week

Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.- Oscar Wilde

*My apologies that this post is a little late in arrival. I've been so busy.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Friday, September 25, 2009

A Quick Little YouTube on a Travel Day

Today will be spent in cars, airports, trains, and buses. So, in lieu of an actual post, please accept this video. It will be the last performance video for a few weeks.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Goldilocks Politics and Media Manipulation

President Obama has pushed for some idealized degree of middle ground between two parties and between two competing ideological groups. Though I never doubted his sincerity, I admit that at the beginning I was highly skeptical of its feasibility. Even so, I was willing to entertain the notion for a while. Since then, riding the schizophrenic tides of high and low that typify media coverage, I have variously believed that compromise in every contentious matter was both highly possible and highly impossible. In these strange days, perhaps we're all grasping about in the dark trying to find a substantive thread of analysis that satisfactorily pulls everything altogether into a neat conclusion. Perhaps we're all trying to find a development or breaking news story that doesn't contradict the one that came before it. Our world is too complicated and too interconnected to ever be easily encapsulated into one narrative, but many try anyway.

As it stands, I often wonder if the perfect politician, the perfect President, the perfect Congress, and the perfect Supreme Court justice even exist in anything more than the mind. I'm not defending those who believe that consensus process means removing one's spine in the process, but positing whether we ask too much from those who we place in positions of authority. From my perspective, it seems that immediately after we elect another President, he enjoys a brief honeymoon period of no more and no less than three months. During this brief Christmas truce in the ongoing War Between the Cultures, a period full of no overt hostilities, sometimes misrepresented as bipartisan good feeling rather than a temporary ceasefire, the half of this nation that voted for him feels warm fuzzies and the other half that did not temporarily holds its tongue (if not its nose). Those who oppose him limit direct criticism because they don't have enough evidence on hand to oppose policy decisions that haven't even been put into force yet, while those who support him entertain wild delusions of best case scenario and thrust pet issue after pet issue into a plate not designed, nor large enough to accommodate them all.

One must admit that there is a kind of laughable lunacy about the proceedings. A President can't even much enjoy even this highly limited Era of Good Feeling before before the media has advanced a story---long cued up and long written---specially designed for the occasion, questioning whether the honeymoon is still ongoing, and if so, how long it will last. Next, talking heads and pundits profess their opinion on the matter, further muddying the waters. Last, feeling the need to both justify itself and to appear as though it is merely reflecting the existing currents of viewers and voters, the media then conducts highly subjective internalized polls to support the conclusions it has drawn. In pointing back to average Americans, its stated intent is to provide some contrast and indication of what popular opinion might be on the issue. That we might all be thoroughly confused by the end strikes me as not particularly hard to understand.

Imagine if you were promoted to middle management in some nameless corporate entity. For the first three months on the job, each of the co-workers under your control treated you with reverence and respect. Assume then that another department entitled the Polling and Media Department started sending out e-mails to your employees, asking them whether or not they believed that they would always feel a sense of loyalty and comfort with you at the helm. You were never told that this was happening and your employees felt no compulsion to inform you of the process. Then, let's assume that you had to begin making some difficult decisions based on the effects of the recession. This recession, which you didn't create, still required you to deal with its effects. In a very short period of time you recognized that you were going to have to make some unpopular decisions. These involved cutting salaries, considering whether or not certain people needed to be let go for the sake of eliminating cost, and pondering whether existing workers would have their hours cut to prevent the company from completely going bankrupt. At this point, the Polling and Media department sent out a fresh wave of e-mails asking your employees how they felt about you now, if their perspectives had changed since you took control, and whether or not they blamed you for it. This data was then e-mailed back to your employees and found its way into your first performance evaluation, whereby you were asked by your boss why you hadn't done a sufficient job of keeping company morale high.

Do we really believe in the Goldilocks ideal?

Author Christopher Booker characterizes this as the "dialectical three", where "the first is wrong in one way, the second in another or opposite way, and only the third, in the middle, is just right." Booker continues "This idea that the way forward lies in finding an exact middle path between opposites is of extraordinary importance in storytelling".[13]

The Goldilocks Principle describes a situation which is just right in a manner akin to that portrayed in the tale. The concept prevails not only in literature, but also in astronomy and economics. A Goldilocks planet is neither too close to nor too far from a star to rule out life, while a Goldilocks economy describes one which is sustaining moderate growth and low inflation, which is seen as allowing for a market friendly monetary policy.

Every political pundit returns to the idea that aiming for the middle is the most sensible approach and that catering to the base is the way to lose Independent and Moderate support. That might be so, but conventional wisdom in politics, I have learned, might be conventional but often it isn't wise. In times like these where so many established precedents are no longer valid or at least no longer relevant, one would think the smartest perspective would be to formulate new wisdom and new rules. With so much in flux, however, it is challenging to come up with anything that can be set in stone or provides any kind of lasting comfort or guidance. What I do know is that it appears that the leaders of our party are just as confused as we are and if there is any saving grace to be found, it is that the party of opposition is more confused than us.

Ignore what the media has told us. The Republican party is not dead, nor was it ever on life support. It has not magically revived itself, either. Anyone can coalesce support around a common enemy. Indeed, that was how we elected Obama in the first place, and how we won control of Congress two years before that. Rather than believing that in between two extremes is a wholly satisfying middle ground, it might be more sensible for us to hold fast to our own virtues as we understand them, rather than being blown to and fro in the wind. We are not politicians and we can stand firm in what we believe without fear of censure or losing our job. The skill set of a politician requires a good bit of dexterity that borders on deception and slight-of-hand. We ought to concede that our expectations, impatience, and demands make an impact while still not forgetting how wealthy contributors, corporations, and lobbyists often dictate policy, as well. Polls, experts, and pundits do not often speak for us and they probably never will. One cannot measure a person's internal convictions with numbers, percentages, and figures. For as often as they get it right, they often get it totally wrong.

I Love It!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil

One of the seemingly few bright spots for the GOP in an otherwise dismal 2008 election cycle was the ascent of Virginia Representative Eric Cantor to the position of Minority Whip. While many state voters cast their ballots for a Democratic Presidential nominee for the first time ever, several ballots included votes for both Barack Obama and Cantor. What was on the minds of voters, as reported at the time, was that Cantor was something of a tolerable moderate. Ever since then, however, Cantor has taken his position as the second ranking Republican House member and used it for predominately obstructionist ends. As this article states, if anyone ought to claim the title of Dr. No, Cantor should.

What has always concerned me about the supposedly cozy relationship that the United States has with Israel is how the right-wing deifies this most atypical of all Middle East nations. According to conservative rhetoric, Israel can do no wrong and as such must be protected as some kind of sainted child from the scourge of terrorism and Arab aggression. In their way of thinking, Israel is a buffer zone against hostile regimes and a virtuous champion of "our" values. As such, it must always stay strong to contain and repulse potential threats. Yet, it would go against logic and reason to assume that any country is perfect. Each and every nation makes significant mistakes and lest someone with selective reading skills miss the point, my stating this does not make me somehow Anti-Israel, Pro-Terrorist, or Anti-Semitic.

When you marry this fawning Pro-Israel talk with Evangelical Christianity, then the effect produced is truly frightening. Most Evangelicals believe Israel to be the Holiest of Holy sites. In their way of thinking, this tiny country is the precise location where the inevitable will come true and the long-promised war between God and Satan, Good and Evil will transpire. Though much about the Christian Right frightens me, the power and potential exploitation of self-fulfilling prophecy fills me full of dread the most. But even so, Evangelical Christianity and Judaism are a union of convenience, much like the one that exists between the United States and Israel, rather than a pairing based on shared purpose. Many Evangelicals hold a particular reverence for Jews, but also believe it is their stated agenda to convert them to Christianity. Though both religions utilize the same scriptural teachings, the interpretation and emphasis of the same words and concepts is vastly divergent.

The latest Eric Cantor soundbyte, which must have been constructed with the clear design to inflame and to invoke response deserves a response. Though I diligently try to ignore those clearly aiming to start a political controversy and/or a resulting war of words, I simply couldn't stay silent on this matter. Too much hypocrisy and irony exists within it to not raise my voice in protest. Observe.[ed] his opposition to Obama’s “disproportionate focus” on halting the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank instead of adopting a policy geared toward eliminating the “existential threat” posed to Israel by Iran’s nuclear program.

“If you look at the policy that this White House has followed, it certainly does not seem as if we are dealing with a true friend” of Israel, Cantor said.

What constitutes "a true friend of Israel" is a matter for debate and one, particularly in this context, notably not set by the Jewish nation itself. Instead, it frequently finds use as a political talking point, designed to criticize and shame those possessed of a point of view in opposition to the whims of whomever is making it. I would question whether, strictly speaking, Cantor is a "true friend of Israel". Few conservatives in this country are willing to note that if the label "socialist" could be pinned to any nation, Israel might well have a strong claim to the distinction. State-owned businesses and industries have existed within the borders of the Jewish state ever since its founding in 1948. While in times past many Israelis more heavily favored a socialistic system and many still do today, the nation is nonetheless highly dependent on U.S. assistance, whether it be in the form of military or economic aid. This has created a conflict. The unenviable position between playing by Washington's rules or governing their country by the ways they themselves would prefer is not an easy one. That, in and of itself is not a particularly uncommon response. Since we have the biggest guns and, until recently, had the strongest economy, the countries we actively assisted always had to modify their own political leanings against Washington's hard line and heavily conditional purse strings.

Furthermore, Israel's system of government is based heavily on the European Parliamentary model, containing a wide variety of disparate political parties, instead of the predominant bicameral system we use. It is, in effect, a European state transplanted to a region that has never known anything resembling Democracy, and the fact that tensions and aggressions would exist between it and its neighbors does not take a rocket scientist to explain, nor to understand. Some assume that other Arab states strongly dislike Israel for purely petty, superficial reasons, but the truth is that it is such an bizarre anomaly in comparison with the rest of the region, that a mutual degree of distrust and fear which exists ought to be obvious.

Cantor has, true to party line, recently spoken out against health care reform. If he were a true friend of Israel, as he implies that he is, he would take into account this reality.

Simcha Shapiro calls Israel's health care system "socialized medicine with a privatized option".

Israel has maintained a system of socialized health care since its establishment in 1948,[citation needed] although the National Health Insurance law was passed only on January 1, 1995. The state is responsible for providing health services to all residents of the country, who can register with one of the four health service funds. To be eligible, a citizen must pay a health insurance tax. Coverage includes medical diagnosis and treatment, preventive medicine, hospitalization (general, maternity, psychiatric and chronic), surgery and transplants, preventive dental care for children, first aid and transportation to a hospital or clinic, medical services at the workplace, treatment for drug abuse and alcoholism, medical equipment and appliances, obstetrics and fertility treatment, medication, treatment of chronic diseases and paramedical services such as physiotherapy and occupational therapy

To the Obama Administration's credit, they have fired back with a response to Cantor's charge.

Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to respond to Cantor’s comments but said that securing a lasting two-state peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians was “how you can be a true friend to Israel.”

The lessons to be drawn from this are many. As we have done many times before, this country likes to project its own agenda and its own internal political squabbles onto whichever country happens to be the current topic for debate. The irony here, among many, is that other nations, believe it or not, have their own strong opinions, their own distinct political persuasions, and their own means of conducting business. I suppose it would be inevitable that any country as large and influential as we are would project its own narcissism onto countries not nearly as fortunate and privileged as we are. I have frequently made a point to ask people who live in other countries what honestly bothers them about the United States. The number one gripe, regardless of national allegiance, is that it seems as though we really believe that the world revolves around America and, not only that, in so stating this we assume every other nation ought to acknowledge our importance and dominance, too. It's one thing to be a superpower and have that status influence the discourse of other countries. It's quite another thing altogether, however, when we assume if not altogether demand that other countries ought to make our concerns their concerns as well. This situation proves to be another unfortunate example of a behavior we would do well to discard.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

In God's Name, You People are the Real Thing!

When Glenn Beck will praise Hillary Clinton in an interview with Katie Couric and state that he would have voted for her instead of John McCain had she been the nominee, then one is forced to question how much of his gasping, weeping, over-the-top vitriol is real. Moreover, when Beck will also note, in the same interview, no less, that Barack Obama, a man who he recently smeared as being both racist and motivated by a hatred of white people, was a better choice than John McCain in our past Presidential election, I can't help but think we've all been had. While I know not every media figure, pundit, prognosticator, and soothsayer falls into the entertainer category, but somehow I think in this context the very word "entertainer" is deceptive and insufficient.

I'm not sure any of us, regardless of party allegiance or ideological persuasion feels "entertained" when we are privy to someone's vicious, bigoted rant. Entertainment in this context is a subjective term. It's not "entertaining" for me to see or hear a person make emotionally loaded and potentially dangerous charges based on nothing so much as a shred of evidence. Some people enjoy watching people make fools of themselves in reality television shows. I don't. I find it impossible not to feel bad for them. Some people possessed of a disturbing sadistic streak enjoy amateur YouTube videos that chronicle someone's very real fistfight or the latest act of pointless public violence captured by a surveillance camera. I don't. If someone on my side started making throwing out extremist, extemporaneous, baseless insults at the expense of Republican politicians, I'd probably change the channel and more than likely turn the television off altogether.

Forgive me if I think sometimes that we've been had. Forgive me if I think sometimes that the joke's purely on us. Glenn Beck has become an excellent target for progressive ire but now I wonder if he's even worth our attention from henceforth. Ann Coulter, thankfully, seems to have been so discredited or at least so distanced from the national stage in recent months that we haven't had to react to her latest asinine opinion. Nature, as the saying goes, abhors a vacuum. In her place came Beck. The comparison many have made and one Beck himself has welcomed is that the man is some kind of modern day Howard Beale. Not so, not so. The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves, despite his disheveled and eccentric behavior could be counted on consistently to strike at a revealing truth about ourselves. If Glenn Beck strikes at anything, he shows an impressive command of reactionary pseudo-intellectualism, the kind espoused by the sort of people who type up rambling twenty point manifestos and distribute them on street corners or at bus stations.

The real Howard Beale was engaged in the business of dramatically presenting credible and prescient rants. I can't recall any instance in the film Network where the character lies, contracts himself in an interview, or states anything less than discomforting wisdom. Had he been an actual public figure, one wonders what sort of withering criticism he would have received from all corners and particularly how the league of right-wing commentators would have responded. One also wonders how the mainstream media, Beale's primary focal point, would have covered and defined Beale for its audience. As it stands, it might do us well to examine the keystone monologue of a film that, while it might be thirty-three years old now, has morphed from satirical fiction to present reality.

So, you listen to me. Listen to me!

Television is not the truth. Television's a goddamn amusement park.

Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers, and football players.

We're in the boredom-killing business.

So if you want the Truth, go to God.

Go to your gurus.

Go to yourselves!

Because that's the only place you're ever gonna find any real truth.

But, man, you're never gonna get any truth from us. We'll tell you anything you wanna hear. We lie like hell. We'll tell you that Kojak always gets the killer and that nobody ever gets cancer at Archie Bunker's house. And no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don't worry. Just look at your watch. At the end of the hour, he's gonna win. We'll tell you any shit you want to hear.

We deal in illusions, man. None of it is true!

But you people sit there, day after day, night after night -- all ages, colors, creeds.

We're all you know!

You're beginning to believe the illusions we're spinning here!

You're beginning to think that the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal.

You do whatever the tube tells you --

You dress like the tube.

You eat like the tube.

You raise your children like the tube.

You even think like the tube.

This is mass madness, you maniacs!

In God's name, you people are the real thing.

We are the illusion!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Activism is Not a Labor Saving Device

Birmingham News columnist John Archibald advances an important argument in his latest op-ed, entitled "Our Tribalism Belies our Better Natures". As a means of back story, it needs to be mentioned that the government of Jefferson County, Alabama, has been so woefully mismanaged that it has made the national news for all the worst reasons. Not only that, the mayor of the city of Birmingham is currently under indictment for a variety of corruption charges and will be on trial soon. And recently, after 1 (one) city employee came down with swine flu, the mayor felt it necessary to spend money the city doesn't exactly have to shut down the entire municipal government. Upon the context of these recent events, Archibald makes a strong case of how we ought to live our lives to avoid these pitfalls.

Archibald interviews McWane Center chief Tim Ritchie to emphasize his main idea. For those who are not Birmingham natives, the McWane Center is a non-profit local science museum and research archive.

The way Richie puts it, humans have learned over the millennia that there is survival in numbers. When a threat looms, we run to our tribe for safety. The bigger our tribe, the better our odds for survival.

It sounds like a bunch of high minded stuff. But it’s simple. It’s as easy to understand as love or hope or faith.

Because tribalism touches us all. I see it when readers say, as one did this week, “I agree with you, but I can’t tell my husband.”

Our community divides us into tribes within tribes within tribes. In the Birmingham area we have hundreds of council districts in 50-plus cities. We govern by commission district in Jefferson County, with little call for politicians to consider the community at large.

It’s the same across the state and nation, whether our issue is constitutional reform or health care. People take hard lines based on their chosen tribe’s “talking points,” or their tribal pundit’s position.

Sometimes even the intellectual among us fear to step from the safety of those tribes. Time has taught us what the Japanese say in a proverb: “The protruding nail will be pounded in.”

You need a hard head to take that beating.

As a historian, I've devoted years of my life to study the records left behind to document the past. In hindsight, I wonder now why I am so surprised that any worthy reform movement runs into significant opposition. I could, for instance, cite any number of examples for as far back I'd care to go where change came with much strife and partisan gridlock. Words on a page, however, do not reveal the context of the times. Anyone can be a Monday Morning quarterback. Regarding past events, I must concede that I simply wasn't there. To get a true understanding of the status quo antebellum, one must actually have lived in those times. The historical record doesn't give its reader the ability to easily understand contextual events, trends, and subtext, which in many ways are more important, if not as important, than the main narrative. Events in isolation are often useful, but the full picture, despite the massive advances in technology simply is not available, even on pay-per-view.

Now, having been through the same rough ride that we all have, I know I will never again cavalierly question why other people from another age couldn't manage to pass and enact desperately needed reform measures. I can now place myself in the shoes of those who pushed for each and every one of the societal advances we frequently take for granted today and faced a roaring head wind in every step from beginning to end. I understand now, more than I ever did before, that bipartisanship only works if both sides are capable of acting like adults. But this revelation doesn't just stop at how I will perceive of the past henceforth. This epiphany will influence how I view the future, too. Now, having seen for myself that post-racial societies require more of us than just passively than voting for the First Black President™, I will not be surprised in a few years when the First Female President™ faces a substantial sexist and misogynist backlash, no matter how adamantly she proclaims she is advancing a post-gender agenda.

Part of it is that we are so conditioned to believe in Madison Avenue and in the labor-saving devices it has peddled for decades. The ads of the Fifties, for example, rapturously and excitedly presented technology as the savior of mankind from the barbaric servitude of manual labor. Ever since then, though the slogans have changed and the strategies have been tweaked, we have been led to believe that purchasing things will save us time, money, and effort, freeing us up to do what we please. We've also been told that we are what we purchase, and that's an attitude I encounter within the first four seconds of turning on my television. One could make a compelling case that accumulating things has made us less happy, not more so, and that free time means more time for self-serving pursuits. Selfish pursuits are, after all, what got into the sheer number of messes in which we are currently mired.

At meeting recently we were discussing ways to be more environmentally friendly. When the topic of reducing one's carbon footprint came up, a woman shared a story that reveals how much consumerism has burrowed its way into our brains and subconsciously influenced our decision-making process. "When I began contemplating how to reduce my footprint," she said, "the first thing that popped into my head was 'What can I buy to accomplish it?'" We all laughed, knowingly, but the point was made. The statement isn't just ironic, it's also emblematic of the unfortunate fact that we think substantial activism or social justice might be accomplished in the easiest way possible with the minimum amount of jostling along the way. If someone can sell activism in a box, one can be sure that we'll buy it in record numbers.

Archibald concludes,

So where is the hope?

It is in the opposite of tribalism, Ritchie says. It comes when we decide to live what he calls “evidence-based lives.”

If we can break from the worst of our tribal impulses, we can change. In things as simple and personal as our diets, or as confounding as city government.

If you eat too much cake and get fat, you learn to lay off the cake.

Evidence can come from the heart or the soul, from experience or from hard data, Ritchie says. It is not an affront to faith, for much of the proof in life is spiritual or “deeply emotional.”

And that’s why this seemingly complex idea is so easy. If we see our tribalism, resist the bad parts and live according to evidence, we can change the world.

With one little commitment.

“Our leaders, in churches, schools, communities, even in households, need to agree to lead evidence-based lives,” he said. “We — and we know who we are — need to commit to adapt our behavior according to the evidence.”

Pretty simple, like a roadmap to reasonability. It might just give us the courage to break, on occasion, from the tribes that bind.

And that, really, is a brand new theory of evolution.

I can't add much more to that resolute conclusion except to register that, as best we can, we ought to remember from now on that any worthwhile effort will require sacrifice and that it will not come easily. The wisest among us warned that the struggle ahead would be arduous and in so doing, they invoked past struggles which had run into substantial partisan bickering. Each time another new face arrives on the scene, I think we believe that the inevitable stresses and strains of humanity will melt away at the ballot box. Institutional memory is notoriously short-lived and fickle and this may not be something one can ever reform. Evolution has its limitations, too. Yet, we as humans do much better when we have a goal in front of us and I can't think of a more worthy fight than that of resolutely resolving to move the race forward. No worthwhile challenge comes without steady pressure and unyielding resolve.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Quote of the Week

"Callous greed grows pious very fast."- Lillian Hellman

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Another Health Care Horror Story: Big Pharma Edition

At the outset of putting fingers to keys this morning, I wasn't intending to write about this topic. I changed my mind, however, because if one more documented instance of Big Pharma's greedy, hypocritical, exasperating behavior means that we might all benefit from substantial and lasting health care reform, then I am certainly not above sharing my personal story. In particular, this highly frustrating anecdote refers to the unnecessary hassle it has been to obtain one of the three medications I must take on a daily basis to effectively treat my illness. This forthcoming narrative also underscores the perfidy of the industry itself and, in particular, its automatic assumption that anyone who uses its free or reduced cost services must be trying to cheat the system. It shouldn't surprise any of us by now that this underlying attitude somehow isn't portrayed in the self-serving television advertising advancing the program's merits.

You may have seen the commercial. It was pretty ubiquitous for a good long while. A soothing voiceover, couched in hushed tones meant to intimate gentle sympathy, states that American's pharmaceutical industry might be able to help those who are uninsured attain their prescription drugs at a deep discount. We are led to believe that an imaginary bus tour is underway, looking for all the world like the kind favored by political candidates on their way back and forth from event to event. A series of different looking people from all walks of life announce proudly their allegiance to their own particular state of residence. A man who once led a daytime TV show which frequently showcased the results of paternity tests and established the true identity of baby daddies smoothly performs his role as spokesperson. That this ad aired constantly in the immediate period before Health Care Reform became a political and ideological football was no accident. The implication was that Big Pharma could regulate itself just fine, thank you, and not only that, the industry was so altruistic as to offer medications for needy Americans without need of government arm twisting. I admit at the time I viewed these ads with much suspicion, but after I unexpectedly lost my Medicaid coverage at the end of July, it was an option I had no choice but to pursue, since paying $700 a month out of pocket for a thirty day supply isn't exactly an viable alternative.

The process wasn't easy, for sure. In a way, it was almost debasing. I had to fill out a lengthy form full of questions that, in my opinion, bordered at times on invasion of privacy. Their extensive nature reminded me of the kind of exhaustive detail of which one has to provide a health insurance company when filing for coverage---self-reporting every conceivable illness or ailment, so as to make easier work for their underwriters. The second half of the lengthy form, denoted under the heading of "Patient Advocate", had to be completed by my doctor and his office with sufficient information to validate that the doctor was, in fact, a certified professional, while not forgetting to enclose a current, up to date, and verifiable prescription. Once approved, the medication was to be mailed to my doctor's office, not my place of residence. I was promised nothing more than a vague four-to-six week turnaround for the first month's worth of medication, if approved, and was told by my doctor's office that I'd have the option of a few free samples to tide me over if my claim was denied.

Fortunately, it did not take long for my first month's supply to arrive and I eagerly drove downtown to pick it up. Within two weeks I received a call from my doctor's office stating that my medications had arrived. "Easy enough", I thought to myself, daring allow myself the ability to stop worrying about the matter for a brief moment. In hindsight, I really should know better by now than to ever assume such a thing regarding any facet of our for-profit health care system. Those were indeed famous last words.

The day after I picked up my medications I received a call, first thing in the morning, I might add, from the pharmaceutical company itself. I thought at first perhaps they must simply be confirming that I had received my medication. That was part of their agenda, but certainly, as it turned out, not all of it. A terse (and unsmiling, I imagine) pharmaceutical representative informed me that I would only receive one month's worth of medication on their end, since they had determined that I could easily qualify for Medicaid and thus had no need for subsequent shipments. If I had to pick an word choice to qualify this person's overall attitude, condescending might be the best word choice. Once again, I had to explain that I had lost my Medicaid some weeks back due to my state's efforts at cost-cutting and budget trimming and the odds were not particularly favorable that I could ever get it back. The person with whom I spoke then demanded particular documentation to prove it. While I do have a letter of cancellation stating the date my coverage was terminated, that was not sufficient for the drug company. Instead, I was flatly informed me that I would get no subsequent refills unless they were provided an authentic copy of a denial of Medicaid services. That they would be this ridiculously particular about the matter strikes me as beyond petty.

At that juncture, I explained to them, for what seemed like the eight millionth time in the past several weeks, that Medicaid in my state is almost never granted to single people without children. I informed the representative that the only way I could probably even obtain Medicaid, regardless of how deserving I might be, would be to get married or to contribute to a pregnancy. And, I added, it was only due to a very specific provision of the Medicaid law, a provision now denied to me, that I was even able to get Medicaid coverage in the first place. In this state, those who have the best shot at actually attaining coverage are children, since we feel sorry for children more so than we feel compassion for adults. I informed the representative that while I could certainly reapply for Medicaid, due to a substantial backlog caused by high unemployment and an ongoing economic recession, it would be as long as 90 to 120 days before any judgment was made on my case, at which point I would certainly need more medication well before then. And to reiterate what I had just said a few moments before, I told the representative in no uncertain terms that I probably wouldn't get Medicaid coverage at all and that even bothering to apply would probably be a waste of everyone's time, including theirs. Despite all of this, that crucial piece of paper stating the obvious is what the company claimed it must have before subsequent months of medication were sent out.

I hung up the phone, deeply frustrated, while recognizing again that our automatic settings, both within corporations and within individual humans beings, are that of deep suspicion and heavy scrutiny whenever anyone requests something for free or at a reduced rate. This anti-welfare mentality leads us to adopt regulations that force a person onto the defensive, needing to provide mandatory, exhaustive information and sufficient, completely verifiable justification before we'll ever give him or her anything resembling a break. Somehow this is an attitude not extended to corporations, big banks, CEOs, or certain government agencies. If I had to state an opinion, I'd say that we're purely overcompensating. We assume we're not powerful enough, nor able to directly impact larger entities, so instead we think we opt to control and micromanage individuals instead. That we all have control freak tendencies at times is certainly food for though. That we aim low because aiming high promises results that might not succeed in what we deem a timely fashion, might not be easily measurable, or might not give our egos the satisfaction of basking in immediate results, however destructive they might be in the long run, is an even deeper note for concern. If any reform, health care or otherwise, is to succeed we might well contemplate changing our attitudes towards how we define productivity, success, and results. After all, Health Care Reform won't just affect us in the here and now, it will impact future generations and our future health and well-being.

Saturday Video

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Currency of Currency

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour was recently interviewed by the conservative Washington Times and stated his opinion on a variety of current events. Barbour's name has been floated as a potential 2012 Republican Presidential nominee and he appeals strongly to the party's conservative base. The most interesting portion of the interview focuses on federal government spending versus state government spending. Barbour's reply also reveals how quickly we have forgotten the problems of our past. Those who advance a states' rights agenda and hold up the Tenth Amendment as justification often forget the massive problems this country faced when we focused more on individual states at the expense of Washington, DC. While placing more control in a centralized system of government has created some problems, they are nothing compared to way it was when the reverse was true.

Noting that employment and state revenue "typically continue to decline 18 months after a recession ends," Mr. Barbour said states that have already pared their budgets to the bone have nowhere else to cut with more hard times on the horizon. The big bill that Mr. Obama's health care overhaul may present to the states would only add to the burden, he argued.

"There's nothing about this that is particularly encouraging for state financing, which is why we don't want the federal government to stick us with a huge unfunded mandate for health care reform," he said. "Most states can't pay for it but one way, which is raising taxes. We ain't got any money. We don't get to print it like the federales do."

This is true, to an extent. States do not currently have the ability to print money but at several times during our nation's past they did. A particularly pertinent instance that comes to mind during the Civil War. Every state in the Confederacy, plus many of those with allegiance to the Union printed its own currency. The list of those who printed state-backed paper money included the Arizona Territory, Delaware, the Indian Territory (later to become Oklahoma), Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and West Virginia. Each of these lost its value precipitously as the war went on and undermined economic stability in the process because their true worth was so frequently in flux. It was often impossible to pronounce with any modicum of confidence what any state's real monetary value was at any one point in time.

A century or so before that, each American colony printed its own currency, which was often supplanted in trade by the money of other countries. The British pound, for example, was often much sounder than the scrip printed by individual colonial governments. During the Revolutionary War, a specifically separate continental currency, meant to cover the sum of the debts of the thirteen colonies fighting the British was printed by the Continental Congress. Devastating inflation and wholesale deprecation of currency transpired when the legal tender printed by every state, plus the Continental currency, plus the currency of other countries wrecked havoc with the fragile American economy and tentative banking system.

New issues were made at various times until the close of 1779, when the aggregate amount was $242,000,000. Then the bills had so much depreciated that $100 in specie would purchase $2,600 in paper currency. By the end of 1781, $100 in specie would purchase $16,800 in paper. Laws, penalties, entreaties, could not sustain its credit. It had performed a great work in enabling the colonists, with no tax revenue during the first three years of the war, to fight and baffle one of the most powerful nations in Europe. The total loss to the people, by depreciation and failure of redemption, of $200,000,000, operated as a tax, for that depreciation was gradual.

This is what created the establishment of the U.S. dollar in 1793 as part of the Constitution that still governs our land.

Continental currency was denominated in dollars from 1/6 of a dollar to $80, including many odd denominations in between, while Colonial currency was denominated in pounds, shillings, and pence, as well as in dollars. With no solid backing and being easily counterfeited, the continentals quickly lost their value, giving rise to the phrase "not worth a continental".

The painful experience of the runaway inflation and collapse of the Continental dollar prompted the delegates to the Constitutional Convention to include the gold and silver clause into the United States Constitution so that the individual states could not issue bills of credit.

Raising taxes in a red state is about as popular as calling for an end to the death penalty. The very threat, whether real or imaginary, that one's opponent would dare to increase taxation if elected has felled Democratic party challenger after challenger in the South. It hasn't just stopped at the South, too. I recall Walter Mondale's infamous assertion in his speech accepting the 1984 Democratic Nomination for President. Mondale stated that his Republican opponent, Ronald Reagan, would raise taxes while simultaneously claiming that he would not, but that he, Mondale, would, in fact, raise taxes but was at least honest enough to tell the American people up front. This strategy backfired royally then and the political conventional wisdom of today would indicate the same approach would be political suicide even now. But what Barbour notably does not mention are the ways by which conservative states like his raise revenue by other methods besides direct taxation. In the Governor's home state of Mississippi, for example, dockside casino gambling is legal in the three Gulf Coast counties of the state, particularly on riverboats. Though the practice doesn't raise tax dollars directly, legalized gambling does draw customers into Mississippi in the form of residents of adjacent states who are legally prohibited from the practice in their own place of residence. With increased tourism comes a corresponding increase in sales tax revenue when an influx of visitors frequent local businesses.

Every southern state with the exception of Alabama and Arkansas have some degree of legalized gambling outside of Native American-run operations. Most, however, resort to lotteries rather than casino gambling. To assuage concerns by more conservative Bible Belt residents, these lotteries were often set forth for a vote on the premise that much of the revenue collected would be allocated to fund public education, both for K-12 and Higher Ed. Georgia's lottery system as set up by then-Governor Zell Miller was marketed as a way for deserving, high-achieving high school students to receive full, or at least partial scholarships for in-state colleges and universities. The results of this program have been mixed, at best, as have the implied positive gains of many lottery-based programs. Wikipedia's entry on state-run lotteries concludes,

Presently, many lotteries in the US donate large portions of their proceeds to the public education system. However, these funds frequently replace instead of supplement conventional funding, resulting in no additional money for education.

For example, much of the stimulus money has been used for the same purpose in state, city, and county public education systems. The influx in cash hasn't been earmarked and designated to do what it was supposed to do as envisioned by the authors of the legislation. The intent might have been to expand needed programs or to make public education work more efficiently, but instead the funds are absorbed, used to justify the status quo, and nothing much changes as a result. I'm not sure how anyone can make leaders or the people who follow them do what they ought to do. Aside from establishing an extremely expansive regulatory system that goes well beyond banking, I know that people will always opt for quick-fixes and band-aids when shaking things up enough to make actual reform would more than justify the short-term discomfort with the long-term gain. This is why I am not surprised to see so much conservative push-back against President Obama's proposals. Racism might be a part of it, but much of it is merely that people do not like having to modify their routines and their well-established patterns, even if it would ultimately benefit them in the future. We have grown complacent in our own subjugation and that is the saddest fact of all.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Democrat Socialist Party? How about the Republican Anarchist Party?

Conservative voices have continued to rehash, as part of the Reagan mythology, the military impotent of President Carter a la Iranian Hostage Crisis. They use this as their catch-all justification for and evidence of the evils of a weak military. Advocating for a strong military is the same kind of feel-good panacea as pushing for a strong local police force. Both of them promise security and peace of mind, when what they often produce is neither secure nor peaceful. A policeman on every corner will not necessarily keep young women from being violently attacked and seventeen police cars on the road at all time will not eliminate bank robberies or theft of property. However, many people like to entertain the delusion just the same. The facade of security is much more popular than the reality. For example, a sure-fire way to render yourself instantly unpopular is to propose a sharp reduction in money earmarked for the police department, no matter how justified one might be in requesting it.

In my own place of residence, the city has had to cut back funding for a variety of projects and departments. In particular, the school district has been given a much smaller share of tax revenue then ordinarily allotted it, while a far larger share has been allocated to the police force. As for me, I'd much rather have an informed and educated citizenry of our future leaders than the spectacle which routinely greets me when I'm driving around town---that of bored policemen and policewomen driving around to make their visual presence known, but seemingly not much else. While I do appreciate that most of the police vehicles these days run on flex fuel, not conventional gasoline, I still can't help reflecting on how many tax dollars are being squandered on the latest state-of-the-art gadget or technique that is funded out of the paychecks of ordinary citizens and will be used infrequently, if at all. Many police purchases I have observed come across to these eyes as nothing more than expensive toys for grown ups.

On this same subject, a former Bush treasury official has stated in the Wall Street Journal that he fears Health Care spending will exceed military spending. Like the good Quaker I am, my immediate response is, of course, "What's wrong with that?" A sure-fire way to render yourself instantly unpopular is to start talking about war as an immoral agent in direct contradiction to Jesus' teachings---one that needs to be banished from the face of the earth. I suppose I'd much rather people be healthy and live long lives as free from pain as they can than for us to have the unfailingly depressing capacity to blow the hell out of our latest enemy. Not only that, I might even be enough of a dreamer to believe that improving the quality of life for all might be a far more unifying solution than violently ending lives in an inferno of evil.

To draw a parallel between a city police force and the U.S. military, all kinds of devices are utilized that give the facade of protection and safety. In reality, they are little more than window dressing and wishful thinking. As we have determined, a color-coded terror alert system does not keep us safe. An increased troops presence in Afghanistan has not interrupted the opium trade, nor prevented the reformation of the Taliban. Constant patrols in armed vehicles have not completely eliminated violent acts. Nor has this deceptively insufficient shift of soldiers from one troubled country to another prevented journalists from being kidnapped. My point in identifying these limitations of military force is not to inspire fear, but rather to illustrate a very difficult lesson: complete safety is an illusion.

The President and others have talked constantly about the need to eliminate waste, graft, and corruption in the health care industry as a means to pay for the massive overhaul commonly known as Health Care Reform. I don't doubt that the program will, as promised, pay for itself if serious efforts towards eliminated frivolity and superfluous procedures are eliminated. Living for the past fifteen years with a chronic illness have provided more than enough examples of that. Sometimes I wish I wasn't as aware of the absurdity as I am. However, somehow we as a society haven't quite confronted the subject of waste and needless expenditure as regards military spending. Though noting the negative impact of the military-industrial complex is a start, if we are committed to reduce our deficit and to streamline certain titanic segments of our economy, we might be wise to consider military spending reform, too.

Though I might be an idealist at times, I am far from a fool. If we thought that Health Care Reform inspired incredible hatred and spite from the Right, imagine what kind of missiles would be lobbed at us if we proposed ways to modify the military. The Republican response would be immediate. We'd be painted as soft on terror, soft on defense, and accused of inviting other countries to invade us. Uniformed people at Town Hall Forums would demand that they didn't want a government-controlled military. The same snidely dismissive charges that greeted Candidate Obama when he advocated at least giving diplomacy with our enemies a chance would resume. In many situations, particularly this one, my spiritual beliefs are tempered by pragmatism. I do recognize that the only way war can be set aside is if every country gets on board and that for, a variety of complex and interlocking reasons, that is unlikely to happen any time soon. Even so, we have a distressing tendency to believe that our military always works flawlessly and that the more tax dollars we add to it, the better it functions. The same people who speak out against government incompetence or are the first to assert that "throwing money at a problem is no solution" notably do not extend these same scathing criticisms to our military.

I suppose could mention Abu Ghraib, enhanced interrogation techniques, Guantanamo Bay, the Iraq War, and others in my own defense, but spin and rationalization will always get in the way of logic. There will always be questions considered too dangerous to be sufficiently questioned or even sufficiently answered. I, for one, believe that there is far more to 11 September 2001 then will ever be revealed in our lifetime. Lest anyone misunderstand, what I am NOT saying is that I believe 11 September was an inside job. What I AM proposing, however, is my firm belief that this country was so woefully unprepared for the attack (strongest military in the world, natch) that the entire chain of command as established in the Bush Administration, on that tragic day, resembled nothing less than a comedy of errors. I believe that Vice-President Cheney and high-ranking insiders, not President Bush, ran our government for several hours, if not for several days in the chaos and confusion that ensued in the immediate aftermath; an embarrassing degree of miscommunication and incompetence reigned. Admitting that to the public and to the world would not exactly show us to be the sterling, confident superpower of which we like to portray ourselves.

Much could be learned from both our mistakes and our network of quick fixes. When we outsource our freedom and health to industries and specialized occupations, we effectively place our collective health and safety in the hands of others who might not necessarily have our best interest at heart. No Republican would ever wish to be labeled an anarchist, but their pervasive and recently adamant refrain that government is the root of evil, whether they recognize it or not, is just that. If conservatives wish to follow this line of logic to its ultimate conclusion, they ought to be finding ways to dismantle government altogether. They won't do this, of course, because dismantling government includes dismantling the police and the military. Anarchy on one's own terms is not anarchy at all. Those Republican politicians who believe that government is the problem, not the solution would be wise to question why they have made a career out this supposed cesspool of corruption and terrible things. They have had years to prune government down to some arbitrary, more manageable size and have found themselves indebted to the same corruption, out of control spending, and size-swelling as the Democrats they criticize. Quite hypocritically, they have increased the size of the government they agree with at the expense of the government they do not. This isn't just hypocrisy, it's also awful policy. That they can still make these arguments with a straight face might explain why they happen to be the minority party who has to embrace the lunacy of their fringes to even stay relevant.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Civility Died Long Ago, But It Can Be Raised from the Dead

The past few days I've read article after article, blog after blog, and listened to talking heads and pundits in every corner trying to make sense of the recent outbursts of rudeness and the egocentric attitudes of many in the public light. If one didn't know better, one would think that such regrettable personal habits and deplorable moral conduct were the latest phenomenon to burst onto the scene, leaving an intrigued press corps to dig into his or her past to provide greater color and context. At this moment, I recall (and I'm paraphrasing) a quote from one of my favorite movies of all time, the 1999 UK cult classic, Human Traffic. The nominal lead character, a worker in a soul-destroying clothing store housed inside a mall, states, If you want my opinion, the Antichrist has been with us for a long time and he means business, big business.

That it took an unprovoked and entirely classless outburst on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives before we were even willing to entertain our own complicity in building a culture of narcissism is what astonishes me. Now, all of a sudden, as though our eyes have miraculously been opened we recognize and cite instance after instance of self-centered behavior and puerile rage. That we are at least unwilling to compartmentalize these outbursts as purely race-drive, gender-driven, or class-driven speaks to the fact that we might finally be willing to talk seriously about this matter instead of sensationalizing, trivializing, or even changing the channel. Many of us had been sounding the alarm for years, but I suppose our voices didn't sell enough papers, or satisfy the advertisers, or fit with the program's image. The past is behind us. We can learn much from Joe Wilson's Private War if we are truly willing to confront several sacred cows and social taboos.

It begins with facing our complicity in its formation. We, to some degree or another, built this monster. To what proportion we did is immaterial. Everyone's hands are bloody. We fed it with money, exposure, contributions, endorsements, hype, demographics, ratings, box office receipts, and residuals. Dealing with it properly will require us to take on some discomfort and even some vulnerability. We have shielded ourselves from the truth for so long and refused to speak from our own common humanity for so many years that I know many of us are long out of practice, if, of course, we even learned the practice in the first place.

When a former President invokes race to explain the disproportionate, gratuitous, and wholly uncivil response of a particular Congressman, some will and have easily and defensively jumped to the side of the accused, countering with charges of reverse-racism, media bias, the existence of a so-called liberal agenda, and in so doing eagerly providing visual instances of racist acts perpetrated by African-Americans against Whites as defense. While this is a very natural inclination, it is also an ultimately divisive one. If, however, we really sought to put racism aside altogether we might muster up the courage to speak honestly with one another. That would require every American to admit that deep down inside in ways that we barely admit to ourselves, we hold intrinsic biases and yes, even some unfortunate viewpoints that are driven by racism. Frequently these prejudices are motivated by the fear of losing something we consider precious and that, once lost, will never be regained. However, let me add that before we zealously leap over each other trying to affix the racist label to whichever target seems most deserving, a better strategy might be to attempt to understand from whence our opponents stand. Racism, like any other -ism of oppression is such a systemic, socially enmeshed problem that many times people espouse racist views without even realizing they're doing it. Though the major offenders deserve to be called out, many people who advance racist arguments or opinions speak purely out of ignorance. We can jump all over them if we so choose, but I believe that teachable moments require teachable attitudes, and sometimes gently correcting those who utter objectionable viewpoints rather than resorting to hysteria might be a better way to go about it.

This same desire to be open to the truth, despite significant discomfort factors into any social justice movement which seeks equality for everyone. For example, as a man, I at times find myself immediately angry and defensive upon viewing feminist websites or publications written by women which cite instance after instance of men who objectify and otherwise perpetuate gender stereotypes. These attitudes often reduce females to the status of mere chattel but for that instant I find myself sticking up for them! Most of the men these articles cite are deplorable human beings and utterly unapologetic for both their actions and their words. After I calm down a bit I recognize that I would never have defended them at all had another man brought it up or had I observed it personally in my own life. These days, I've learned enough and talked to enough people to have managed to teach myself for the most part how to distinguish between justified attacks and unjustified attacks, but many people have never had that opportunity, nor have had anyone to inform them of why this discipline is so vitally important. The ability to not immediately personalize every controversial topic is a desperately necessary skill to acquire if we are to live in peace with each other.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Idolatry of Information Overload

The news reporting phenomenon known to members of the media and citizen journalists alike, by way of a phrase that is neither particularly descriptive, nor especially revealing, has been recently dubbed "New Media". While the internet and the blogosphere has shaped New Media's formation and taken an important role in driving its agenda, the movement is really nothing more than an updated version of a successful series. The inevitable generational senility known as institutional memory, or perhaps even the willful ignorance of many has ensured that few have made the connection between the devices of internet age and the similar tactics of prior age---namely that of the investigative journalist. Both of these quantum leaps had similar motives and were inspired by similar circumstances. When the next big thing becomes the status quo, purists and pioneers alike seek to find something better and, upon its arrival, leap aboard in a desire to become its champion.

In the same way that the creative nonfiction/investigative journalism hybrid known as New Journalism dominated the 1960's and 1970's, so too is New Media the newest, most immediate method to disseminate pertinent information. Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and the steady unraveling of the Watergate scandal faithfully reported by Woodward and Bernstein owed much to New Journalism and its established codicils. New Media has revolutionized the industry (if not completely shaken it up) and in so doing established a more egalitarian approach towards data collection and dispersal. The movement has its adherents and its detractors, but in seeking to best understand and define New Media, it might be instructive to first understand New Journalism. According to New Journalist Tom Wolfe, the discipline in its heyday was comprised of several interrelated elements, among which were

  • Telling the story using scenes rather than historical narrative as much as possible
  • Dialogue in full (Conversational speech rather than quotations and statements)
  • Point-of-view (present every scene through the eyes of a particular character)
  • Recording everyday details such as behavior, possessions, friends and family (which indicate the "status life" of the character)

    Despite these elements, New Journalism is not fiction. It maintains elements of reporting including strict adherence to factual accuracy and the writer being the primary source. To get "inside the head" of a character, the journalist asks the subject what they were thinking or how they felt.

  • An older school of journalism would have presented the facts in such as way as to mimic a scientist forming a theory. Objectivity at the expense of personal opinion or emotional leaning was the established precedent of the time. However, the limitations of this approach were also noteworthy, namely that journalistic objectivity was a stated goal quite often difficult to define with an precision, and a destination even more difficult to realize. Furthermore, the story was produced by adhering to strictly objective standards, which frequently came across as sterile and dispassionate, which often eliminated the human element altogether. Any writer, regardless of topic, intent, or subject must find that elusive balance between factual presentation and emotional warmth, which when achieved separates good writing from adequate but unspectacular prosy. Some scholars have even argued that objectivity justifies indefensible points of view like, for example, racism in its efforts to evenhandedly present every side of a conflict. In our times, this fallacy of thought normalizes the arguments of not just the rational voices opposing President Obama's agenda, not just the cacophony of the crazies, but also the Republican politicians who attempt to use unfocused, irrational anger for their own political expediency.

    Some in the media have been expressing their strong displeasure that an off-the-record portion of an interview with President Obama was Tweeted for the world to see. While this impulsive act does violate journalistic ethics at the most basic level imaginable, it seems to have also spoken to existent fears among the conventional media that such behavior will only increase in frequency henceforth. Perhaps so. The internet has an undeniable immediacy to it that print media cannot match and editors cannot red pencil. However, also feeding these anxieties is the realization that the internet cannot be controlled or regulated in the way that media of an older age could. Instead of perpetuating a mythology of some romanticized epoch approaching demise, it needs to be stated that the media's power has frequently been curtailed by The Powers That Be.

    Franklin Roosevelt held an paternalistic iron fist over the press and even directly dictated to reporters precisely and unequivocally what he did and did not want printed in the dailies. Those who displeased the President during press conferences would find themselves at the mercy of his frequently caustic tongue. I can't imagine such behavior would be tolerated today in any corner or by any organization. A generation or so later, New Journalism ushered in a new degree of media power and influence. New Journalism brought down a President, after all, and when it did, politicians were forced to recognize that the roles had very nearly reversed. Once upon a time the media was careful to appear deferential to politicians. From Watergate forward, politicians have been careful to appear deferential to the media. Before, politicians could make or break journalists. Now, the media can make or break politicians. This power shift was not achieved overnight, nor without substantial effort, which is why the mainstream voices are understandably threatened by the arrival of competing interests. Above all, what the media does not wish to concede openly is that it owes its current gigantic stature in the American psyche by the skillful application of similar tactics now employed by bloggers.

    Stanley Fish's New York Times recent blog post confronts another piece of a huge puzzle. This critique raises some very pertinent and very interesting points. Particularly fascinating is the suggestion that our own exhaustive pursuit of knowledge might very well prove to be our undoing. I myself am fearful of the idolatry in which people believe that wisdom alone might be sufficient to solve every problem. And though I am a person of faith, I do not believe that irresponsible reliance upon God will solve every issue. However, what does trouble me at times is that we seem to believe that knowledge alone might be our sole salvation. Intelligence and learning is capable of solving many matters but taken to an extreme it obscures the common humanity that links us together. The pursuit of information without the guidance of morality can easily become a cancerous, constant pursuit of triviality and banality.

    Jonathan Robinson, writing in this century [states]: “What we are talking about is the desire to satisfy our curiosity on any and every conceivable subject that takes our fancy”.

    Give this indictment of men in love with their own capacities a positive twist and it becomes a description of the scientific project, which includes among its many achievements space travel, a split atom, cloning and the information revolution. It is a project that celebrates the expansion of knowledge’s boundaries as an undoubted good, and it is a project that Chairman Leach salutes when he proudly lists the joint efforts by the University of Virginia and the N.E.H. to digitize just about everything. “The computer revolution,” he announces, “holds out the prospect that the digital library could be become an international citadel for the pursuit of curiosity.”

    That’s exactly what Paul Griffiths, professor of divinity at Duke University, is afraid of. Where Leach welcomes the enlargement of curiosity’s empire, Griffiths, who is writing a book on the vice of curiosity, sees it as a sign of moral and spiritual danger: “Late modern societies that are fundamentally shaped by the overwhelming presence of electronic media and the obscene inundation of every aspect of human life by pictures and sounds have turned the vice of curiosity into a prescribed way of life”. The prescriptions come in the form of familiar injunctions: follow the inquiry as far as it goes, leave no stone unturned, there is always more to know, the more information the better. “In a world where curiosity rules,” Griffiths declares, “unmasking curiosity as a destructive and offensive device . . . amounts to nothing less than a . . . radical critique of superficiality and constant distraction.”

    Many in the professional media have either implied or stated directly that they ought to be the only gatekeepers trusted with the task of regulating information exchange. Had they, in times past, proven themselves worthy of such a responsibility and uniformly consistent in its application, I would be more inclined to concede them the point. Radical superficiality and constant distraction are as close a definition of much of the programming on cable news as I could possibly hope to come up with on my own. To be fair, this degree of mind-numbing banality is not all that gets aired, but it nonetheless transpires often enough to raise very legitimate concerns. In contrast, some in the mainstream media have made a case that "the blogs" fit this exact same description. It needs to be noted again that all blogs are neither identical in purpose, nor in content. While many of them do revolve around mindless self-gratification, one needn't forget the vast number of substantive, pertinent, and noteworthy sites that have inspired me and frequently enriched my own posts.

    Perhaps it was inevitable that the private would become more public. Perhaps it was inevitable that old ways would give way to new ones. Perhaps each generation must confront these same issues and the same unresolved riddles which presented themselves in different, but related forms to those which came before them. Human behavior constantly vacillates between the logical head and the passionate heart. A strong case can be made for both, but what few would disagree with is that arriving at some happy medium betwix't the two of them is the only real public option we have.

    Ivor, The Engine Driver